The announcement of the post of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Independence Day speech on August 15, is curious. Curious not just because it comes so late, but also because the government thinks it can solve deep human problems in the military through what is at best a bureaucratic ‘reform’ based on a 20-year-old recommendation. It may find that all it does is like joint service command, add another layer of military and civilian bureaucracy with zero actual improvements in anything, be it operational, strategic or logistical.
The root of the problem is two-fold. The first is the human capacity deficit across the board in the military. This manifests itself in several ways starting with a deeply problematic understanding of budgets or economics and progressing worryingly onto a lack of standardisation of equipment.
The second problem, which derives from the first, is the heavily army-centric approach of the Indian military as a whole, ignoring the fact that it is air forces and navies that win modern wars. Worse still, while armies themselves have moved towards a less manpower-intensive paradigm, the Indian Army continues to invest heavily in manpower, as for example the ill-fated mountain strike divisions.
The question is how does a CDS solve any of this — the answer sadly is that in 1999 when the Kargil committee report came out it did not solve problems and even less so now. If anything the Kargil committee was a classic case of a superficial enquiry that came up with outdated solutions without understanding what the problem was and gave answers that were obsolete then and are even more so now.
For example, most of the casualties were brave army men forced into attacking uphill, while being badly equipped and with inadequate direct fire. We still have stories of how large howitzers had to be hauled uphill to provide such direct fire. All of this could obviously have been avoided if they had adequate and accurate air support.
The problem then (as is now) was that precision munitions were too expensive to expend on targets such as 5-10 man ad hoc bunkers and we were fine expending human lives to compensate. To this day we have not solved the problem of mass producing cheap precision munitions.
Complicating this was poor leadership and atrocious supply chains because of a heavily-outdated logistics chain, too many different types of ammunition and equipment to bring about economies of scale and general disinterest in logistics despite Erwin Rommel’s dictum “the quartermaster wins the battle even before it has begun”. How a CDS would have solved this problem then is a mystery and now even more so.
For example, to this day our soldiers lack proper body armour, proper helmets, proper rifles, etc. Yet the Indian Army is more interested in howitzers and tanks, when the French Army, for example, is able to control an area twice the size of India in North Africa with just trucks, jeeps and helicopter and a mere 3,000 troops.
The navy continues with white elephants such as aircraft carriers, despite the fact the MiG 29s on the INS Vikramaditya suffer from serious problems and the fact that the submarine wing, the air wing and surface wing cannot properly communicate with each other seamlessly.
Meanwhile, the air force is on its own trip, its future plans dependent on no less than four different types where even the US Air Force and Navy will be rationalising to just two types of fighters. Moreover three of the four IAF types will be heavy, ruinously expensive twin-engine aircraft with limited weapons, engine and systems commonality.
All of this is because of the human capacity deficit, because each individual service neither understands modern industrial supply chains or economics of scale, but more importantly because their respective leaderships refuse to rationalise and streamline their services. Some of this is because their interactions with modern campaigns being fought by industrialised powers is acutely limited. Their conversations with foreign colleagues are formalised, or as in the case of joint exercises, such as the Red Flag and Malabar, severely stunted for ‘operational security’ reasons with limited learning that doesn’t get institutionalised or dispersed within the relevant branch.
It is also because of the fact that importance comes from the ‘breadth and scope of ones responsibilities’ as ‘Sir’ Humphrey Appleby put it. How else can one describe repeated rejection of the Indian Air Force’s tender for aerial refuellers on cost grounds, or the fact that no company was interested in bidding for the Indian Army’s infantry combat vehicle (ICV) which has now had to be junked several times? The latter competition elicit sneering and guffaws, with vendors laughing in private that ‘the army seems so clueless that if they read in a magazine that an ICV could fly they’d want jet engines put on it’.
Let us be clear, the problems of each service are too deep and the solutions are required at the foreign interaction, educational, and industrial level — not at the top, but at the bottom. This is not a macro problem, it is a severe micro problem, and all a CDS does is add another floor to a flat whose foundations are crumbling.
Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is a defence economist and senior fellow at Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. Twitter: @iyervval. Views are personal.